Washington Nationals Baseball: Pitching, Defense, and Bryce Harper
As the Nationals bullpen and defense got right against the Cardinals the offense started to come around against the Reds. The Nats bullpen gave up an earned run in each series and that was it. Clippard and Storen didn't look their best against the Reds but the defense bailed them out. That is why the Nats want great defense. The pitching philosophy of Steve McCatty is for his pitchers to fear not a bat, and sometimes when pitching in the zone so much a pitcher will miss his spot. It is nice to have players that can catch those mistakes. Every Nats fan saw what Denard Span is capable against the Reds and Desmond and Espinosa is one of the best double play combos in baseball. When Zimmerman returns this Friday the Nats will once again have the best defensive infield in baseball.
Pitching and defense is great, but for the Nationals the third part of the winning formula hasn't been timely hitting it has been Bryce Harper hitting. Look at the Friday game against the Reds. The Nationals scored one run in that game and it came on a Bryce Harper triple that was followed by a Werth single. Bryce Harper is going to be the difference in a lot of games for the Nationals this season, but if they don't start getting some production from other spots in the line-up they won't be the high 90s win team everyone thought they would be. With all likelihood the offense will come around. Players like LaRoche and Zimmerman have too much history of being productive players for it not to and Danny Espinosa against the Reds was seeing the ball better, working deep into the count, and putting the ball in play with more authority.
The biggest offensive worry for the Nationals right now are the corner infield positions. Anthony Rendon is just starting to look more comfortable and hit better in the majors, but Zimmerman is due back on Friday and even if Rendon is more comfortable Zimmerman is an upgrade in every facet of the game. Rendon may have a stronger throwing arm than Zimmerman but a couple of his errors have been on throws just wide so there is a question of if he knows how to use it. As Nationals fans will remember with Ian Desmond and even Danny Espinosa guys with cannons for arms sometimes take awhile to get it all right at the major league level. The field and players are both faster and mistakes more costly in the major leagues. The real question will be what does Rendon do when he goes back to the minors. Do the Nats continue to play him at third with the idea of moving him to first to start the 2015 season or does he play second far more often with the thought that the Nats could end up this season with four .800 OPS players on the infield.
Whatever the answer is to the Rendon and second base issues it isn't as important to the Nationals offensive woes as getting first and third base going. When the line-up is all together and in their proper order those are the number four and five hitters, the power offense spots. The Nats have the luxory of being able to wait as long as the pitching and defense continues to look like it did against the Reds and Cardinals. The Nats may have lost the home stand 3-4 but the most runs they allowed the entire time was five to the Reds on the final day. Over the seven games the Nats allowed an average run total of 2.57 a game. Keep doing that and even the paltry offense that averaged 3 runs a game on the home stand will be enough to float above .500.
The Nats offense is better than that. Anyone that looks at the career averages of the players knows that. The good thing about defense though is it should be more consistent. At the beginning of the season the Nats looked like they were still playing in the Grapefruit League, but recently it has been lights out. It will continue to improve as they get more into a rhythm and closer to mid-season form. And if the Nationals can get Strasburg to stop giving up first inning runs, continue to get the Gonzalez and Zimmermann they saw against the Reds, and even if Detwiler and Haren give up three earned runs a piece in five or six innings then the Nationals pitching and defense will be able to carry them until the offense comes around. The schedule gets no easier as the Nats from now until June 4 the Nats play 22 of their next 32 on the road. If the pitching and defense looks like it did against the Cardinals and Reds then the Nats will end up winning more of those games than they lose and then can take off in June.